Nestled high among the mountains of Cauca, a coca-producing region in southern Colombia, La Sierra is one of those forgotten villages Colombians call ghost towns. For at least two years, it was governed by the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (farc). But, on March 5, 2003, a band of 36 soldados campesinos, or peasant soldiers--ordinary Colombians who train for three months in urban warfare under a new government program and then return home--marched into town and took over. According to surprised residents, the farc abruptly left. "The guerrillas were here before," confided Aurelio Trujillo, a barefoot worker at the town's "Indian Store." "They haven't come back."
La Sierra may seem trivial in the context of Colombia's four-decade civil conflict against drugs and terror. But it represents a sea change that began with the election of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe Velez in May 2002. Backed by U.S. money and utilizing aggressive new counter terror and counter-narcotics strategies, Uribe is starting to gain the upper hand against rebels and drugs, a battle some observers said could never be won. In fact, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos testified before Congress this week that coca and poppy crops would be eliminated by the time Uribe's term ends in 2006.
A central element of "Plan Colombia," the joint U.S.-Colombian anti-drug effort launched in 2000 and embraced by Uribe, has been the destruction of the country's coca crops, which provide the precursors for 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. Under Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, the United States was only allowed to fumigate in certain proscribed areas since Pastrana did not want to offend the farc, with whom he was negotiating a landmark peace deal that ultimately failed. In fact, Pastrana gave the farc a so-called safe haven the size of Switzerland, which even the Colombian military was not allowed to enter. In Putumayo, an area bordering the safe haven where the bulk of Colombia's coca crops are grown, Pastrana permitted intermittent, and ineffective, fumigation. According to an American Embassy official, fumigation began in Putumayo in December 2000 only to stop again in March 2001. It resumed in November 2001, was suspended in March 2002, and finally started again in July 2002. The result: From 2000 to 2001, coca crops expanded in the safe-haven area from 32,200 to 40,300 hectares. In Putumayo, they declined a mere 5,400 hectares, from 47,400 to 42,000.
Under Uribe, the situation has changed dramatically. The new president has allowed American contractors in Colombia to fumigate coca crops across the country for the first time. The widespread fumigation is working. Last year, Colombia's coca production fell for the first time in a decade. In Putumayo, according to U.S. estimates, coca crops were reduced from 42,000 to 8,200 hectares. In the former safe-haven area, they declined from 40,300 to 32,350. Even the United Nations, which does not participate in fumigation efforts, credited the U.S. spray program as a main reason for the drop in coca crops in 2002. One American official estimates that, by 2005, fumigation will have reduced Colombia's coca crops to less than one-fourth the acreage planted in 2000.
And the U.S. spray program comes with a surprisingly low price tag. Since the launch of Plan Colombia, the United States has spent a mere $83 million on spray planes, chemicals, pilot salaries, the training of Colombian pilots, and other contractor expenses.
Some critics of Plan Colombia warn that fumigation will only lead to increased coca growing elsewhere in the region. "I don't share the warm and fuzzy view that we're on our way to salvation here," says Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, who sponsored an amendment to eliminate $61 million of the $105 million in aid provided to Colombia in the fiscal 2003 supplemental bill. "You can fumigate all of Colombia if you want, you can fumigate all of Peru, then you can fumigate all of Bolivia, but coca production won't stop." But McGovern may be wrong. While coca-growing may temporarily increase among Colombia's neighbors, fumigation has in the past proved effective in countries such as Peru and Bolivia, which do not have large armed militias supporting the drug industry. As Colombian production drops and the United States and Colombia take the fight to the farc and other groups, the capacity of the main drug-producing country in the region will be decimated, and handling production in smaller neighboring countries will be much easier.
Wiping out the armed militias is hardly an easy task, but the United States and Colombia must do so to win the drug war. The farc and their nemesis, the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym AUC, are the drug trade's main protectors. Without the militias' muscle and networks, coca growers and traffickers would be much more vulnerable to law enforcement efforts. Indeed, as documents recently seized by the Colombian military show, the farc and other militias essentially have become the drug lords themselves.
In an abrupt change from Pastrana's failed peace effort, Uribe has stepped up the Colombian military's attacks on the farc. Sporadic state government has long been a problem in some regions of Colombia, where the weak rule of law has helped foster the rise of armed groups. But, now, Uribe is aiming to station troops in all of Colombia's 1,098 municipalities by filling the army's ranks through the peasant-soldier initiative, by imposing a war tax of 1.2 percent on the rich to pay for military programs, and by proposing to extend mandatory military service to the sons of the wealthy, who have long evaded it. Through these measures, Uribe has promised to increase the army from 60,000 to 100,000 troops.
Uribe's government is also using new tactics to convince the rebels to surrender. It has launched a series of radio broadcasts designed to inform both rebels and paramilitary members of the atrocities their groups have committed and to advertise how much better life is among legal society.
Uribe also has benefited from increased U.S. counter-guerrilla aid, which comes on top of the counter-narcotics aid in place since 2000; in March, Congress passed legislation allowing the United States to help fund Colombia's war effort. U.S. aid has gone toward training Colombian troops in counter-guerrilla warfare and in protecting such institutions as the Cano-Limon oil pipeline in troubled Arauca state. In 2001, the farc and other rebels bombed the pipeline a whopping 170 times, costing the Colombian government $500 million in lost revenue. As part of the aid approved in March, the United States also pledged resources to help decapitate the AUC and to protect Uribe, who has been the subject of several assassination attempts by the farc.
Although he has yet to achieve a major military victory, Uribe has put the militias on the defensive. According to the Colombian Defense Ministry, between August 2002 (when Uribe was inaugurated) and March 2003, the government has captured 3,217 members of the farc and the National Liberation Army, another guerrilla group, a 128 percent increase from the year before. It has nabbed 1,237 AUC members, a 98 percent increase since last year. Meanwhile, since January 2003, when Green Berets arrived to train Colombian troops stationed near the Cano-Limon pipeline in counter terror tactics, the pipeline has been bombed less often. And, largely because of the government's program to boost desertions, there has been a 40 percent rise in rebel desertions since 2001.
Still, skeptics are not convinced that the drug war is winnable in Colombia. "Security is not just the fear of being attacked by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Security is the fear the mothers and fathers have of being able to feed their kids," says McGovern. He's right. But, for the townspeople of La Sierra, any government presence is a ray of hope, and any gains in the war on drugs mean a great deal. "The town is calm," Trujillo says simply. "It is very different."
Rachel Van Dongen is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor based in Bogota.